By Zach Goins
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — After years of hard work and failure, Taylor Otto finally achieved one of her biggest goals: she was headed to Papua New Guinea.
But Otto, a redshirt freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, wasn’t vacationing there in the fall of 2016. She was suiting up for her country. Otto was selected to play on the United States’ women’s national team for the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
While the U.S. placed fourth out of the tournament’s 16 teams, it was still a dream come true for Otto. Her path to the U-20 Women’s World Cup had been anything but easy.
After suffering back to back ACL tears in high school and being cut from the U-15 and U-17 national teams, Otto admitted her confidence was shaken.
“A week after I came back from my second ACL I was called into the U-19 camp and I went there and I was just not ready for it,” Otto said. “I just remember calling my coach and [I] was like, ‘I’m just not good enough to be here.’ It was frustrating, because I knew what I wanted to do, but I just couldn’t physically do what I was thinking.”
But after successfully coming back from two torn ACLs, Otto was ready to prove to her coaches, and herself, she could still play at the highest level. She identified her weaknesses at the camp and went home determined to strengthen them for her shot at the U-20 team.
Otto, who said she’s always struggled with confidence, looked to one of her role models, women’s national team star Carli Lloyd, for inspiration while training for the U-20 team.
“She’s been through a lot to get where she is, and I think a lot of the players that I’ve been around, and even myself, have gone through the same things,” Otto said. “We’ve been where she’s already been. It’s just cool to see that she got through all of it.”
After training with the national team for five years and only making one appearance before being cut, Otto was able to relate to Lloyd’s early experiences and learn from them.
“I mean you just get cut from teams,” Otto said. “You work hard and you don’t make it. And it’s not always perfect, but she always kept working.”
And that’s exactly what Otto did.
She played every minute at center back in her three appearances in the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championship to help the U.S. qualify for its trip to the World Cup. Then in Papua New Guinea Otto kept proving herself, appearing in all six of the team’s games.
“That was a really cool time, and I was fortunate enough to get to play in the games,” Otto said. “Just the atmosphere there was something I’d never been a part of.”
However, playing on the national team came at a cost.
Otto, who enrolled early at UNC in the spring of 2016, was forced to redshirt her first collegiate season and miss out on the Tar Heels’ run to the NCAA semifinals.
But with Otto, fellow U-20 teammate Jessie Scarpa and a nine-member recruiting class joining the team for the 2017 season, the Tar Heels are looking to make another run at a national title.
“Last year was kind of a lower year, but everyone just competed so much that we got to where we did,” Otto said. “But we have some really great players coming in, we have Scarpa and I coming back. So, I think this year could be the year, hopefully. We have great team chemistry, everyone loves to play and play together. So we are hoping we can go to the national title.”
Despite all of the struggles she’s faced on her path, Otto said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
While she was sidelined with injuries, Otto continued to look for ways to improve herself. She began to watch the game more, studying its intricacies to better understand different schemes and strategies.
“It’s hard when you get to a certain level, everyone is so good,” Otto said. “You are kind of used to being the best player on the field, and then when you get to a stage where it’s like everyone can do the same things you can, where you say, ‘This separates me from everyone else.’”
But beyond the Xs and Os, Otto said her injuries helped her develop a better appreciation of the beautiful game.
“I think it humbled me,” Otto said. “It showed me that it can be taken away so easily. I think there’s people that have never been injured or anything, and they do talk like, ‘Ugh, I’m training today and I don’t want to do this,’ and I used to be like that too. But it’s just, you don’t know when you can’t play again, and I think that was good for me to see.”
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.